“Creating as a woman, for female readers, [Hagio] found herself wanting to make every action more realistic and plausible. As she put it in her 2005 Comics Journal interview, ‘it came out sort of giggly.’ It was important that the characters be Other in order for Hagio to explore the themes, some quite abstract, that she wanted to explore.”
– Rachel Thorn, introduction to The Heart of Thomas
When legendary manga artist Moto Hagio set her groundbreaking 1974 manga The Heart of Thomas in a European boys’ boarding school, she was hoping to add a degree of distance for her female audience to process the story’s themes of faith, love, suicide, and surviving sexual assault. In the process, she co-created the genre of BL (boys’ love or m/m romance). But I’m not sure she could have guessed it would lead to 2008’s Cronenbergian erotic horror visual novel sweet pool.
Just take a minute to absorb that list of descriptors, I’ll wait. Good? Cool. I need you with me on this, because it’s going to get way, way murkier the further in we go. While sweet pool is definitely a tough sell, with a very dark storyline and a foot in several niche genres, it also deserves recognition for its terrifying depictions of consent, uterine anxieties, and puberty in horror games — even if it trips and falls at the finish line.
Meet the Parents
sweet pool is the child of a few famous names — Gen Urobuchi of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Psycho Pass fame is listed as an advisor on the game, but the true credit for the story goes to Kabura Fuchii, the main scenario writer for the (in)famous Nitro+CHiRAL. The studio has built a cult following over the years through fan translations, particularly of 2012’s DRAMAtical Murder, but it wasn’t until late 2018 that any of their games received official English releases courtesy of JAST Blue. And the game they chose as the first salvo was the Cronenbergian cultist conspiracy about pooping meat. It’s perfect.
No, it really is. Fans of Nitro+CHiRAL are drawn to the studio’s high-concept BL stories, but one of the first things a newcomer is likely to hear about are the bad endings. CHiRAL protagonists have been dismembered, eaten (alive), assaulted, brainwashed and more, and the macabre enjoyment of seeing how gruesome things can get is at least as fun as going for the happy endings.
sweet pool doesn’t have any happy endings. While CHiRAL’s other games are predominantly genre fiction with horror undercurrents, sweet pool is out-and-out a horror game. It’s also a structural odd duck: there’s really only one “love interest,” while the two endings with other characters are glorified game overs; the game uses third-person rather than first-person narration; and it spends at least a little time in the perspective of almost every major character.